Tom Eblen

Evolution of Lexington retailing makes me wonder what the future holds

East Main Street at the Harrison Avenue viaduct was prime shopping territory in Lexington in 1956. The site of the Chase Bank Building today was then Bradley's Drugs, Sears and Standard Furniture. Herald-Leader Staff Photo
East Main Street at the Harrison Avenue viaduct was prime shopping territory in Lexington in 1956. The site of the Chase Bank Building today was then Bradley's Drugs, Sears and Standard Furniture. Herald-Leader Staff Photo

’Tis the season for shopping, from the pre-dawn chaos of Black Friday to the last after-Christmas and New Year’s Day sales.

The annual shopping frenzy got me to thinking about Lexington’s retail landscape and how much it has changed in just my lifetime. It makes me wonder what it will be like in another 50 or 60 years.

In some of my earliest memories, my mother is pushing me in a stroller down the Harrison Avenue (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) viaduct toward Main Street to shop the department stores: Wolf Wile’s, Purcell’s, Stewart’s and Hymson’s Tots and Teens.

Downtown was where the action was in the 1950s, and not just on Main Street. A reader recently sent me a copy of a detailed downtown map from that era, and the number and variety of retailers packed along the streets north of Main was amazing.

Most telling was along Church Street, where in the decades after this map was made most of the buildings were demolished to create surface parking lots now decorated with restaurant grease pits.

For example, along the south side of Church Street in the four blocks between Broadway and Limestone, the map shows many retailers: a meat market, a car dealership, a florist, a watch-repair shop, a paint and glass store, a furniture store and a restaurant.

Just around the corner, on the adjacent blocks of Upper and Limestone, there were two opticians, two barbers, a beauty shop, two pharmacies, a bakery, two furniture stores, a Kroger grocery and a photo studio.

Lexington had a few suburban shopping centers by then, such as Eastland and Southland. But much of today’s retail landscape was still just landscape. Hamburg was a horse farm. Fayette Mall was open land east of a complex of R.J. Reynolds tobacco warehouses. (That’s why it is called Reynolds Road.)

After my parents built a house “out in the country” off Harrodsburg Road, we rarely went downtown to shop anymore. Neither did anyone else, especially after the malls started opening: Turfland in 1967, Fayette in 1971 and Lexington in 1975.

Fayette Mall has evolved and thrived as a regional shopping destination, but the other two malls died and were finally redeveloped. In the meantime, dozens of strip centers sprang up, some anchored by a Walmart or another big-box store. Then Hamburg Pavilion (1997) and Brannon Crossing (2004) supersized the concept into so-called “power centers” with clusters of big-box stores and smaller shops.

Lexington’s big retail news in 2017 will likely be the opening of The Summit at Fritz Farm, a 60-acre, $156 million development Bayer Properties is building on the north side of Man o’ War Boulevard east of Nicholasville Road.

The Summit’s look will be more urban than Hamburg or Brannon Crossing, and it will include a 120-room hotel, apartments and offices. The 280,000 square feet of retail space will have upscale chain stores such Pottery Barn, Whole Foods, Brooks Brothers and Orvis, as well as chain and local boutiques and restaurants.

The biggest force in retailing today is online sales. The Internet has revolutionized shopping as it has many aspects of life and business. The Lexington store no customer ever steps inside is the fulfillment center on Mercer Road.

The biggest strategic challenge for retailers large and small these days is figuring out how to integrate online sales with bricks-and-mortar locations.

But as more people move back into urban Lexington, retailers are returning, too. Some are going into the old downtown locations, others to former industrial areas such as National Avenue. In-town residents appreciate the value and convenience of locally owned shops such as Chevy Chase Hardware and Wilson’s Grocery & Meats.

It has never been more difficult for small, independent retailers, who rarely can compete on price with the national chains. But some customers are willing to pay a little more for quality, variety, service and expertise.

For example, many big-box stores sell plants in season. But I am more likely to trust somebody named Michler or Hillenmeyer, because their families have been landscaping Lexington for generations.

“Maybe Christmas,” Dr. Seuss’ Grinch thought in his moment of epiphany, “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”

Of course it does. But we still want and need stores, and it will be interesting to see what forms they take in the future.